Valerie Jenness, dean of UCI’s School of Social Ecology
In “Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights & Carceral Logic,” co-author Valerie Jenness, dean of UCI’s School of Social Ecology, explores the fine line between punishing prisoners and violating their rights. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

California has 33 prisons housing 119,600 inmates at a cost of about $60,000 a year per head. For such an enormous system, it remains a mystery to most state residents. Valerie Jenness, dean of the UC Irvine School of Social Ecology, conducts research behind prison walls and has much insight to offer the public about the institution.

She and colleague Kitty Calavita are co-authors of a new book called Appealing to Justice: Prisoner Grievances, Rights & Carceral Logic, which details how the nexus of mass incarceration and the “rights revolution” of the latter part of the 20th century came to impact hundreds of thousands of inmates. Their research on the prison grievance system explores the “fault line” between overfilling the state’s prisons and ensuring prisoners’ rights.

Along with a team of graduate student researchers, Jenness and Calavita interviewed 120 randomly selected inmates at three state prisons and 23 California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation staff members, including wardens and correctional officers. They also analyzed more than 400 grievance files.

The book reviews the structure, workings and consequences of the grievance system that allows prisoners to contest the conditions of their confinement. Federal law requires that they exhaust this process before gaining access to court.

Delivering on the promise of the grievance system is no small task – made all the more difficult by the parameters of law, the sensibilities of diverse types of prisoners, the mindset of staff at various levels of operation, and the large bureaucracies that comprise corrections in the U.S.

“Prisons are given the task of punishing prisoners, and inmates still have rights,” Jenness says. “The legal landscape of punishment and the promise of prisoners’ rights in the U.S. separates us from countries like China, Russia and Venezuela. In a civilized society, prisoners have rights. That’s the tension that we explore in this book.”

It’s only in the last 50 years or so that groups such as racial and ethnic minorities, women, the LGBT community and the disabled have demanded equal rights, she notes. Prisoners have joined that movement, although their cause garners much less sympathy. “The public can be pretty disregarding. People like to say, ‘It’s jail, not Yale’ or ‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,’” Jenness says. “Ultimately, the book is about how the law works for law breakers.”

Interviewing prison inmates isn’t as simple as setting up a time to meet at Starbucks. Jenness and her colleagues had to obtain many levels of approval before undertaking the research and had to undergo security screenings upon entering the prisons. Officials would hand them “panic buttons” that resembled car door openers for use in emergencies. Despite the intimidating atmosphere, the researchers never felt threatened.

“Most inmates just want to tell their stories,” says Calavita, UCI Chancellor’s Professor emerita of criminology, law & society. “We couldn’t believe how candid they were.”

Still, every once in a while, a loud siren would go off and the prison would go into lockdown, abruptly ending any interviews. It gave researchers a sense of urgency, recalls Lori Sexton, one of the grad students involved in the data collection.

“There was often a rush to get things done, but we had to balance that with taking our time to get to know the person we were interviewing and being thorough in our questioning,” says Sexton, now an assistant professor of criminal justice & criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Getting complaints on the record – whether through the official grievance process or during interviews – is an almost cathartic experience for inmates, Calavita says. The most common complaints center on sanitary conditions in the prison and access to healthcare.

While the grievance system is used by thousands of inmates every year, it rarely results in change or action. In fact, more than 90 percent of grievances are denied by prison officials, Jenness notes.

Still, inmates respect the process.

“Almost half the inmates we interviewed said, ‘Yes, the system is fair,’” Jenness says. “The grievance process is the only recourse available to them. They can’t bargain or negotiate and are very disadvantaged within the power hierarchy. The prison officials are the defendant, jury and judge.”